Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Kinship Without Condescension

By Dorothy Cole

FEBRUARY 7, 2000: 

On the Rez by Ian Frazier (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), hardcover, $25

I used to know an ethnomusicologist who once borrowed some clothes from the daughters of a Bedouin leader, a colleague of hers, and helped the daughters to serve their father his evening meal. The ethnomusicologist was delighted when her colleague didn't recognize her behind the veil and actually shouted at her to mind her manners. Her work, and her travels, had taught her to respect and even envy the people she visited in their everyday connection with older ways of living and thinking. All the same, she didn't continue to dress or behave as an obedient Arab daughter. It is one thing to admire tradition and hardship, quite another to live with it all the time.

Ian Frazier feels that way about Indians. He is acutely aware of the distance between his lifestyle and those of his friends on the Pine Ridge reservation. He realizes that empathy, perception and a few words of Sioux are no substitute for kinship and life experience. Because Frazier is honest and realistic about his own relationship to his friends and their culture, he is able to write about them honestly and realistically. Parts of this book could have been written with just impersonal research and formal interviews. It would still have been worth reading, and might have gotten to the point -- assuming the only point is the past and present history of the Oglala Sioux -- more quickly. By including his own friendships and "wannabe" status, Frazier is able to communicate nuances of the situation that would never yield to objective description.

Part of this book ran as an article in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly. What the full-length version adds, along with more detail and richer characterizations, is more of Frazier's own feelings. It's a particular strength of his to let his own preoccupations provide insight into others. Ian Frazier is the kind of person who would go up to a stranger on the street in New York City and ask him whether he is Sioux. As a result, Frazier meets people and hears stories that give meaning to his own choices and research. His friend, Le War Lance -- one of the two heroes in this volume -- has been a soldier, a movie actor, and a convict (and now, for the second time, a literary hero.) Le's life has intersected frequently with the obsessions of the mainstream culture of the United States. Frazier doesn't dwell too closely on which accounts are true, but takes the exaggerations as indicative of his friend's humor and his own role as chronicler of stories other people want told. In their way, the tall tales bring readers closer to the truth.

The book sticks a little closer to provable fact when Frazier gets to the story of SuAnne Big Crow. A high school athlete and exceptional individual who died in 1992, she is presented at first as a sort of Joan of Arc figure. Photographs, news accounts and family memories make her story no less remarkable, but do make her heroism believable. SuAnne didn't live long enough to sell out, and she doesn't sound like someone who would have. Her basketball team had a winning record, but her own self-respect and grace under pressure brought regard from quarters that didn't involve sports and from attitudes that seemed untouchable.

Frazier is a little self-indulgent, but he is so forthright about his own mistakes and misconceptions that it is hard to get too impatient with him. The news release says he comes from Ohio and lived for some time in New York City. Both are places with reputations for sending forth citizens who try to mold other locales in their own grass-covered or urban image. Ian Frazier has the sense to keep his eyes and ears open. You may or may not like him or appreciate his point of view, but he presents a closer, truer picture of contemporary plains life than most overeducated white guys could even attempt, and he does it without condescension.

If nothing else, read the story of SuAnne Big Crow in chapters 12 through 14. Then go back and get the context and history in the rest of the book, so you can begin to understand where she came from.

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